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Get real about grab bags

Get real about grab bags

Reading Time: 4 minutes

In the week that has seen #GrabBags trending on Twitter and a BBC news article on the same topic ranked at number 5, there has never been a better time to try to capture my own thoughts on ‘grab bags’.

Here’s one of the tweets that caused some online excitement last weekend.

I can’t get fully behind any advice that provides a checklist of ‘essentials’ to stick in a bag like this. In fact, I can rarely get behind any advice in checklist form because I think the real world is more nuanced; at best a checklist is a starting point.

I say I can’t fully get behind the idea; what I mean by that is I can see situations and locations where that advice (and, gasp, even checklists) is sensible, but they are not here in the UK.

In August I attended an Emergency Planning Society event and made a confession. I don’t have a grab bag packed in case of emergencies. 

The reasons for that are numerous and some of those reasons listed below. But, I genuinely would be interested in counter-arguments. Am I wrong about this? Tell me!

  • The stuff that I would find really useful is the stuff I use every day. So I’d either have to have two of everything or spend all my time packing and unpacking bags.
  • A lot of the stuff included in checklists is obsolete – a wind-up radio, in 2019? I’m going to get my news online. (What about if it’s a power cut you say? Well, even then it would have to be super widespread and of an extended duration, and in the very unlikely event that does happen, then really what use is a radio going to be anyway, all it’s going to tell me is that there is a major power cut and I’ll be like “yeah, thanks”.)
  • We’re not exposed to the types of risks that would require the kinds of evacuation where a grab bag would be useful. This is actually the biggie for me. We don’t have the types of risks that warrant 48-hour survivalism.
  • I reckon I’ve got a level of personal resilience that means I could look after myself in most situations. What this means, in reality, is provided I’ve got my phone and access to a charger there’s not a lot else that I need. (Yes, I know this smacks of privilege, I’ll get to that later).
  • I know I would be terrible at keeping something like that updated. I cleaned out a kitchen cupboard a few weeks ago and found a tin dating to 2009. Reader, I have moved house three times since then!

So, I don’t have a grab bag packed for emergencies. What I do have is a series of grab bags stashed around the house for the Zombie Apocalypse.

Wait…keep reading…

This isn’t about baseball bats with nails through them. It’s the name I jokingly give the places I store useful things, so that I know where to find household essentials – string, fuses, batteries, picture hooks, duck tape. They’re in a bag, biut I’ll probably never grab it.

As one of the contributors in the BBC article notes, we all prepare ‘grab bags’ every day. If you take a bag to work or the gym, you’ve got the things you need. If you’re pregnant you’ve probably thought about a hospital bag. If you regularly make long car journeys you’ve probably got some essentials in the boot. Grab bags need to be both personally and context-specific. That’s why checklists don’t work for me.

Now, let’s get back to that bit about privilege because this is definitely not an issue to overlook. In the last five years, food bank use has increased by 73%. Read that again. It has nearly doubled. People are reliant on emergency food every day, are they likely concerned about some possible ‘what if’s’?

Not everyone is able to pack a bag in the way that some advice encourages them to.

But now think about how would that make you feel? If you were a single parent reliant on food banks to feed your family. And you see this advice coming out that of by the way you should also have all this extra food just hanging around, and while you’re at it, that money you were going to spend on rent or whatever, no, no, invest in a wind-up radio that you’ll never use.

Of course, I do think that presonal preparedness is important (and often overlooked). But emergency response plans and the systems and processes that support them, should not be so inflexible they can’t cope if someone hasn’t thought to bring a copy of their home insurance when evacuated in the middle of the night because of a gas leak.

Emergency Management needs to wake up and see the real world. And then it needs to come up with solutions and advice that chime with a broad spectrum of people’s realities.

At its heart, the grab bag advice isn’t bad, it’s just ill-framed. Do people really need a bag packed by the front door?

Or is the message really saying “Hey, it might be handy if you’re able to put your hands on some things if you get chance and it’s safe to do so. Oh, but don’t worry if you can’t for any reason, we’ll be here to support you.”

30 Days 30 Ways – UK vs USA

30 Days 30 Ways – UK vs USA

Reading Time: 3 minutes

You may remember that I participated in the American initiative 30 Days 30 Ways last September. It’s a monthly series of daily challenges designed to be simple tasks to help improve emergency preparedness. This year, colleagues in Northamptonshire have also developed a UK version.

Having a local version of the game is great. I found lots of the challenges last year rather difficult and the reason that I gave for this was down to different structures and practices. However, I drew this conclusion with very limited evidence….

Big Brother Eye and EP

As I’m involved in promoting #30Days30WaysUK, and therefore know the list of challenges, it would be a bit of a conflict of interests for me to participate properly. Instead, I’ve set myself the rather impossible challenge of competing tasks from both the UK and USA versions with a view to drawing out similarities and differences.

Each day (or as often as I can) I’ll provide my ‘answers’ to both the UK and International challenges. Where I can I’ll also provide trackbacks to my musings last year.

UK Challenge 1 – talk about emergency preparedness and develop a grab bag

Ok, part one is easy, I talk about emergency planning fairly often, although mostly in a work context rather than how I would actually respond myself.

Those who know me will have heard about my Zombie Apocalypse bag. In reality it’s more of a series of small packs that I’ve stashed in various locations (not just at home) which have some essential items.

There isn’t so much of a grab bag culture in the UK. I think this is largely because we don’t face many of the acute risks that other places do. UK citizens are unlikely to be directly affected by earthquakes, volcanoes or hurricanes, so I’m not convinced that encouraging members they need to be able to live ‘off the grid’ for 3 days would ever have any traction. I do though, think there is merit in having situation dependant grab bags – live in a flood zone, then have a flood kit prepared; driving in the winter, better pack your winter car kit.

I despise checklists, especially when it comes to grab bags. There isn’t one bag to rule them all. Each of us need to tailor the contents to specific actual and perceived needs.

Many of us pack grab bags on a daily basis – whether it’s children’s school bags or the bags we each take to work. They contain what we think we need to get through the day. If you have a gym bag, it has the necessary items you’ll need for your workout. If you’re pregnant then your grab bag for the hospital contains essentials for mother and baby in the first few hours. A grab bag for emergencies is really no different – some key items that might make the disruption more bearable, but as different emergencies would have different impact I’m not keen on the grab-bag-by-numbers approach.

So, whilst I won’t be consolidating my grab bags into one, I’ll stick to maintaining my series of pick’n’mix grab packs!

USA Challenge 1 – Share a sign that illustrates a preparedness message

Any tourist that’s been to London in the last 8 years will know that you can’t move for souvenirs plastered with the Keep Calm and Carry On logo. It’s a fantastically simple message, but I thought it was too obvious a choice.


So after some head scratching and googling I opted for this sign taken about 20 mins from where I live, regarding the Oak Processionary Moth.


Although recently removed from the London Risk Register this remains my favourite (and by far the cutest) risk I have been involved with!

In case it’s not something you’re familiar with, the spines on the caterpillars can aggravate existing respiratory conditions such as asthma, but the little critters can also do damage to oak trees themselves.

Day 1 down, just 29 more to go!


Oh, and the top image is ‘adapted’ from this years Celebrity Big Brother logo. If the big wigs at Endemol don’t like my edits then I’ll remove it, until then I’ll take my chances!

30 Days, 30 Ways: Day 3

30 Days, 30 Ways: Day 3

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Today’s challenge focuses on ensuring that children are prepared for emergencies. As children and young people can be disproportionately affected by disasters this is certainly a worthwhile activity.


The points on offer today are as follows:

1 Pt:    Sadly there are plenty of children out there that are not as fortunate and may need a little help from their community. Today we want you to think about being part of that community.  Please locate and share where donation drop off points are in your community.  We would also like to encourage you to donate school supplies for a child to an area school.

2 Pts: Take today’s task a step further and create an emergency “Kit for the Kid” in your life.

It seems the first two days of the challenge lulled me into a false sense of security, because today’s task is considerably harder!

I have to confess that I’m not sure I fully understand the first task. There isn’t a High Street in the UK that doesn’t have at least one charity shop – that’s where I’ve donated things in the past. However, I’m not aware of any facilities being identified for coordinated donation of items.

The second part of the task revolves around Grab Bags (of useful emergency items). The message for the public to have a Grab Bag is not as strongly articulated in the UK as it is internationally. Pregnant friends and those who exercise regularly tend to have ‘grab bags’ tailored to their needs. However I’m definitely in the minority by having a generic emergency Grab Bag, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen an initiative specifically directed at children having a Grab Bottle.

One aspect about Grab Bags that I dislike is the dreaded checklist – not everyone will need a face mask or be able to find a use for a paracord. The items in your Grab Bag should be those relevant to your needs, rather than packing every conceivable item. Not having a wide necked bottle on hand to pull together a Grab Bottle it’s something that I’ll have to do tomorrow. However, I’ll update this post and provide a justification for each item included.

One of the reasons that I wanted to take the 30 Days 30 Ways Challenge was precisely to learn about other ways of engaging with people about emergency preparedness, and I’m excited for the rest of the month having been introduced to a new idea on day 3!

To finish with some shameless self promotion – don’t forget that my Would you grab your grab bag? post is one of my most viewed!

Grabbing the Grab Bag

Grabbing the Grab Bag

Reading Time: 2 minutes

I was in San Francisco earlier this year, and met with Rob Dudgeon (Director of Emergency Services at San Francisco Department for Emergency Management) who showed me around the Emergency Operations Centre, a facility which I expect has been very busy over the past couple of days, following the Boeing 777 crash on Saturday.

SFO crashWith the NTSB investigation is still in progress I don’t want to comment too much, other than sharing this interesting Forbes piece Why Did So Many Passengers Evacuate With Bags?

It’s something that I think about every time I board a plane. I know that the correct thing to do is to just get out as quickly as possible without being slowed down by rummaging for bags. However, I’m sure we all have experience of workplace fire drills in the cold or rain where just a split second to grab a coat or umbrella could have made us much more comfortable in an unpleasant situation.

Moreover, for an emergency planner, not taking the Grab Bag that I have packed ready for these sorts of occasions seems to be contrary to their purpose.

I’m not bothered about my valuables – I know that the contents of my hold luggage is insured and that I can get them replaced. I’m also not going to need the latest holiday read, but some of the items in my hand luggage could be genuinely useful in the event of an emergency.

  • I  know I’m going to need to call people and I know that my iPhone has a battery life of a few hours at best. So I need my charger, and probably a plug adapter
  • I’m going to need to provide officials with information – having my wallet and passport to hand will help with that
  • If I’m lucky enough to survive the impact, I don’t suppose I’ll manage to stay clean and dry when leaving the aircraft, so whilst it might seem a luxury, actually having a change of clothes is advantageous
  • Other people could conceivably want to grab a few items too – the diabetic on oral hypoglycaemics or insulin, the parents who need to think about baby food…

Plane crashes, thankfully, don’t happen frequently. I’d estimate that I’ve deplaned in excess of 200 times and none of these have been under emergency conditions. We know that under stress people revert to what they know, which could explain the number of passengers who picked up their belongings.

Naturally there is a dynamic risk assessment which must take place. If the fire is raging towards me then I can forego the above, but if I have a couple of moments to grab some essentials without causing a blockage for other passengers then I think that’s a useful activity.

With airlines, particularly budget ones, forcing passengers hands into taking all their luggage as hand luggage (to avoid additional charges) are they contributing to increased evacuation times? Encourage people to bring hand luggage, but keep it to the small essentials in a soft sided bag (so that it doesn’t puncture the escape slides). Don’t tell people to have a grab bag but not to grab it.


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